From her high-energy Earth Day Environmental Fair to recruiting teenagers to maintain trails during their summer break, Audrey Penn works tirelessly to promote her home island — and environmental experts have noticed.
Penn, program manager for Friends of V.I. National Park, was recently recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency with its individual citizen Environmental Quality Award.
“It’s a great thing,” Penn said about the award. “I didn’t even know that my V.I. Network of Environmental Educators partners nominated me for the award. When I found out I had won, I was really excited.”
The news came just after Penn finished a long weekend celebrating Earth Day with the island’s youth. She hosted the Friends’ annual Earth Day Fair on Friday, April 29, and Reef Fest at Hawksnest Bay on April 30.
“This award definitely makes me feel that all of my hard work setting up do down and getting all the schools to come out, really paid off,” said Penn.
Penn, who has been with Friends for almost three years, has also been instrumental in ramping up enthusiasm for the group’s School Kids In the Park (SKIP) program, which resulted in more than 600 local students using VINP as a living classroom.
“SKIP has always been a project that Friends had, but we changed the name and ramped up efforts and interest to bring more students to the park,” Penn said. “We also did more work in the schools to explain how easy it is to get kids out there and how SKIP could help purchase supplies.”
Classrooms can apply for grants up to $500 to cover the costs associated with going to the VINP, Penn explained.
“We just had 77 kids from St. Thomas who visited St. John, some of them for the first time, this year through the SKIP program,” she said. “The students had four different projects. The health class counted how many steps they took on St. John and the science teacher had students identifying different trees.”
Even the youngest students can benefit from visiting VINP and drawing lessons from the environment into the classroom, Penn added.
“We also recently had pre-schoolers from Gifft Hill School go out to Cinnamon Bay and explore their senses,” she said. “They smelled the coconut trees, smelled the bay rum and felt silk cotton. They listened to the gut flowing and learned about nature and also about exploring careers.”
“One student wanted to be an archaeologist, so they visited scientists at the Cinnamon Bay lab,” Penn said.
The SKIP program is designed to engage local youth, which also happens to be a passion of Penn’s as well.
“The goal is to inspire the future of St. John, which is the next generation,” she said. “We are all kind of stuck in our ways, so you have to start with that next generation.”
Penn hoped her EPA award would help to raise awareness about the good work which Friends of VINP achieves, she explained.
“I hope the award raises recognition for the Friends and all that we do,” said Penn. “It’s not just me. Heather [Ruhsam] raises the money and I try to come up with creative and innovative programs to spend some of it. I hope people are aware of all that the Friends does, and has been doing since before I started.”
Penn, who seems to have found her calling, is dedicated to forging relationships between Friends and the community, and VINP, she added.
“I hope to raise awareness about who Friends of VINP actually are and change people’s views in some cases,” said Penn. “We have a great team and a great board and our advisory council is heading in a great direction. Our connection with VINP Superintendent Mark Hardgrove also means we are all working as one.”
For more information about Friends of VINP or to support the group, check out www.friendsofvinp.org or call the group at 779-4940.